Review: Southern Belles, King's Head Theatre

Pride month may be over, but the King’s Head Theatre is ready to take on the mantle with a succession of plays which celebrate the most interesting and innovative LGBTQI+ theatre makers in Britain. Their 2019 Queer Season kicks off with Southern Belles by Tennessee Williams as the headline production. Southern Belles unites two of Williams’ most ground-breaking one-act plays, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens and Something Unspoken, which were never performed during the playwright’s lifetime due to their featuring openly gay characters.

In Something Unspoken, Miss Cornelia Scott (Annabel Leventon), a wealthy and imperious spinster, lives in a co-dependent relationship with her loyal secretary Grace Lancaster (Fiona Marr). As Cornelia anxiously awaits the election results of her local chapter, tensions between the two women boil over and their unacknowledged desire for each other becomes apparent.

Leventon and Marr give striking performances, adding depth and understanding to Williams’ often poetic dialogue. Their characters’ sentimental moments make me lean in closer, quiet tension rising and falling as Cornelia and Grace weave around each other, leaving space for the unspoken truth between them. The change to a soft rose-coloured light gives a flirtatious warmth to these moments, pulling our hearts even further into the women’s complex feelings for each other.

It is the silent images that most aptly portray the yearning for relief from such long-kept loneliness. The moment in which Cornelia gifts Grace 15 roses — a rose for every year Grace has been Cornelia’s companion — is an especially beautiful representation of how much of the women’s relationship is left unsaid.

At points I wish the tension would be pushed further, to break from the women’s steady dance between longing and subordination. 

After the interval, And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens welcomes us into the world of successful interior decorator and ageing drag queen Candy Delaney (Luke Mullins). To get over the end of a 17-year relationship, Candy catches the eye of troubled sailor Karl (George Fletcher) who she can dazzle with her money. On the day of Candy’s 35th birthday, Karl walks out on her, leaving Candy’s tenants Alvin (Michael Burrows) and Jerry (Ben Chinapen) to pick up the pieces.

Mullins makes an exceptional Candy, starting off calm and collected only to collapse into a mound of emotional pain and pity. The strain of Candy’s longing is clearly visible in Mullins’ performance. Fletcher cuts an imposing figure as Karl: aggressive and manipulative on the outside, he lets Karl’s emotional turmoil shine through. 

Burrows and Chinapen frame the first scene with musical accompaniment, directed by Joe Beighton. Later both burst into Candy’s flat as a voice of reason to disturb Candy’s apparent bliss. 

Lighting designer Ben Jacobs creates a lavish landscape, creating drama by plummeting breakdown and abuse into complete darkness.

Jamie Armitage has directed two overlooked classics, beautifully interlacing the themes of longing, loneliness and love. The emotional impact of both plays lasts far longer than the final curtain call.

Southern Belles is playing the King’s Head Theatre until 24 August. For more information and tickets, see the King’s Head Theatre website.